The American as a Play
by Leon Edel
After their dismal performance at the box office, Henry James's plays were consigned in script form to rare library archives until Leon Edel, his preeminent biographer, republished them in a single volume in 1949. In the following essay which he wrote for inclusion in The Complete Plays of Henry James. Edel displays his usual narrative skill as he traces the rise and fall of James's hopes for his own dramatic adaptation of The American.
The Complete Plays of Henry James is still available in America from the Oxford University Press. Check our Links and Bibliography for more information.
Southport, January 3, 1891.
On a Sunday morning in May 1889, Henry James recorded in his notebook that he had agreed to do a play for Edward Compton of the Compton Comedy Company, a theatrical troupe which for the past decade had toured the British Isles playing the old classical comedies and "costume pieces." Compton had his eye on London; with an original play by a distinguished writer he felt he would be able to set himself up in a West End theatre and join the ranks of the capital's actor-managers whose acknowledged peer was Henry Irving. Compton proposed that James dramatize The American and the novelist noted that he would have to "extract the simplest, strongest, baldest, most rudimentary, at once most humorous and most touching play" from his twelve-year-old novel. ("Oh how it must not be too good and how very bad it must be!") He first gave the play the name of The Californian, but later returned to his original title. A note indicates that in February 1890 he completed and sent off to Compton the second act of the play. In April he was confiding to his old friend in Paris, Henrietta Reubell, "I have... written a big (and awfully good) four-act play, by which I hope to make my fortune... Now that I have begun, I mean to follow it up with others."
He went that summer to Italy; before leaving he gave his sister a typescript of the play and when she wrote an enthusiastic note to him he poured out an excited twenty-five page letter of gratitude. He felt he had met "exactly the immediate, actual, intense British conditions, both subjective and objective"; the play would run, to the minute, two and three-quarter hours; the writing of the piece had been an education; superior acting would help but "mediocrity of handling (which is all, at the best, I am pretty sure, that it will get) won't and can't kill it." Wolcott Balestier, who had agreed to act as his agent, had settled with Compton that James would receive ten per cent of the gross and the novelist received a £250 advance on royalties. And James day-dreamed in his letter to his sister of receiving $400 a week during the provincial run and $1,500 a month during the London run, of road companies in England, in America, of tours elsewhere in the British Empire. "These Castles in Spain are at least exhilarating...."
He was back in London late in the summer to begin preparations for the provincial production. He submitted grudgingly to the first managerial cuts and alterations and dashed into the provinces through the rain, damp and fog of the autumn to attend rehearsals wherever the touring company might be. Gradually he found himself coaching the actors and participating in the direction of the play. Most important of all was to teach the tall and handsome Edward Compton how to act like a rich American from California, and what is more, how to talk like one. The typescript sent to the Lord Chamberlain's Office for the licensing of the play seems to have been Compton's; in it, in James's hand, are written the pronunciations of key words for Compton's guidance. The basic principle seems to have been incorporated in a stage direction which instructs Christopher Newman, the American, to speak "a little from the nose."
Southport, near Liverpool, was selected for the first performance of the play. The choice of this resort seems to have been dictated largely by the presence of a large winter population. Compton may have also had a sentimental reason for the choice. Here, in the Winter Gardens Theatre, the Compton Comedy Company had made its start ten years earlier on a bitingly cold winter night, the night of the "great snowstorm." He was returning now to the scene of that snowy debut.
A "supreme, complete, exhaustive rehearsal"
Henry James arrived at Southport on New Year's Day 1891 in a state of feverish excitement. He took rooms at the Prince of Wales Hotel where Compton and his wife, the American actress Virginia Bateman, were staying. The dramatist set himself to the task of reviewing the final rehearsals. The last, a "supreme, complete, exhaustive rehearsal" was held on January 2. The playwright sat alone in the stalls listening and watching, and it seemed to him that someone else had written The American. It was an old-fashioned but roomy theatre; the settings were meagre, but he felt a "kind of mystic confidence in the ultimate life of the piece." It would owe nothing to the way it was acted. The actors had all been conditioned to traditional roles in British classical comedy and drama. Now they found themselves playing the life of the Faubourg St. Germain (which Compton was carefully instructed to pronounce "Saint-Germane") into which the Californian intrudes. The play's strength lay, James felt, in its intrinsic vitality. He placed all his hope on this. Such, as least, was the impression James set down after the last rehearsal as he watched Christopher Newman, in a florid chocolate-colored coat with saucer-like buttons, and similarly extravagant costumes, first win, then lose, then win again the beautiful Madame de Cintré, played by Mrs. Compton. James had substituted a happy ending for the unhappy one of the novel. In 1877, when the novel appeared, he had written to Elizabeth Boott, who wanted a happy ending, that he deemed his denouement "the only possible one. What would you have had? Come, now, they couldn't have married...." Other endings were possible, however, in the theatre; here he could give his hero the victory he had denied him in his fiction.
The final rehearsal over, the company, which had been playing in classic repertory in Southport since Christmas night, was given twenty-four hours of rest. Henry set himself to ticking off the nervous hours until the rise of the curtain. It seemed like an eternity. In the short story Nona Vincent James published the following year, dealing with the trials of a dramatist, James's hero was "unable to eat or sleep, or sit still, at time almost in terror. He kept quiet by keeping, as usual, in motion; he tried to walk away from his nervousness...." but always the path led back to theatre or hotel, to the members of the cast.
The flatterers: Balestier and Archer
Wolcott Balestier arrived full of confidence and enthusiasm. Balestier had been in England for the past two years as representative of a New York publishing house and the friendship between him and James had grown. James later wrote of Balestier's "complete incapacity to recognize difficulties." Two weeks before the Southport first night the young man wrote to William Dean Howells, "My friendship with James is the most precious thing in my 'London life.' We see much of each other and I feel his place a kind of nest or refuge." Balestier was the first of a whole group of younger men who from the 1890's on gathered around James and gave him the admiration and appreciation he craved. "My dear Suzerain of the Drama," he had written to the novelist: "If you will still let me 'assist' at the first performance of the first play of our first dramatist this is to intimate that nothing short of legal proceedings to restrain my liberty can prevent my being present." James couldn't resist this flattery.
The novelist had also received a letter from William Archer, the translator of Ibsen and one of London's leading drama critics. Archer also wanted to come to Southport. He held James in high esteem. James's little dialogue, After the Play, published in June 1889, in which he had complained at the absence of good plays in England, had provoked Archer to reply that the theatre needed the active collaboration of writers such as Henry James. The novelist put up a show of trying to dissuade him from coming: "I won't deny that I should be glad to know that the piece was seen by a serious critic, and by yourself in particular, but I shrink from every responsibility in the way of recommending such a critic to attempt so heroic a feat. The place is far, the season inclement, the interpretation extremely limited, different enough, as you may suppose, from what I should count on for representation in London. The circumstances may be definitely uncomfortable... My hope is greater than my confidence."
William Archer arrived on the evening of the production.
A provincial success
January 3 dawned wet, windy, cold. The Southport papers formally announced that The American would be "played this night for the first time on any stage." The scale of admission ran from sixpence to four shillings. Henry James sat at his writing table trying to write away his anxiety and terror. He wrote to his brother William, "I am at present in a state of abject, lonely fear.... I am too nervous to write more -- and yet it's only 3 o'clock and I've got to wait till 8...." He wrote to a French friend, Urbain Mengin, inviting his prayers, as he did those of all his friends and relatives, with an elaborate flourish. "Je fais du théâtre -- je suis tombé bien bas -- priez pour moi...." To the ever-busy man of letters, Edmund Gosse, he wrote, "After 11 o'clock tonight I may be the world's -- and I may be the undertaker's. I count upon you...to spent this evening in fasting, silence and supplication.... so nervous that I miswrite and misspell...."
All Southport seemed to be at the theatre that night. In the flare of the gas-light a long string of carriages reminded one of the local reporters of an Italian opera night or of a fancy dress or political ball. The audience was "select as well as numerous." All of the 1,500 seats were filled, including those affording so bad a view of the stage that they were seldom sold.
Alice James reported that her brother told her he became "as calm as a clock" just before the curtain went up. Compton allowed his author to come back-stage, giving him a seat in a corner of the right wing, beside the curtain, and from this point of vantage the novelist saw his first publicly-performed play. The portrait that Henry James drew of Christopher Newman was a very broad caricature of the Christopher Newman of his novel. He did not hesitate to "play" him for every measurable laugh at the expense of his countrymen -- but always in an easy, good-natured fashion. He is the same American as in the novel, but where, in the work of fiction, he engages our affection throughout by his directness, simplicity, moral integrity, he at first antagonizes in the play. "I want to have a regular good time," he announces early in the first act. "I've been whistling Yankee Doodle all my life and now I should like to try another tune." And yet for all this, he remains one of nature's noblemen, warm-hearted, generous, a figure of stature and authority. The voice of Newman ends by being the voice of a democratic American bringing a gust of fresh air into the Faubourg St. Germain.
There were no first night accidents. The cast was somewhat nervous, but nervousness bred caution and caution aided perfection. The players, long rehearsed, were letter-perfect in their parts, even though some of them later admitted they didn't fully understand them.
The curtain that fell after the first act on a hushed and gratified house which had followed the play with close interest, applauding at certain moments, laughing in all the right places, brought the author out from his "cubby" where he described himself as having clung to a rail as if he were before an altar (suggesting that he too had been offering prayers). He wrote to a friend later:
"I flung myself upon Compton after the first act: 'In heaven's name, is it going?' '"Going?" -- Rather! You could hear a pin drop!'"
In the story Nona Vincent James's young dramatist lives through the same experience: "Has it gone? -- has it gone?" he gasped to the people around him; and he heard them say "Rather -- rather... He left it to be long before he could back away, before he could, in his turn, seize the manager by the arm and cry huskily -- "Has it really gone -- really?"
For the first time in his already long career as an artist, Henry James heard his work applauded. The play ended and the storm of provincial applause that mounted was sweet music to the nervous novelist. From beyond the gaslight came the shout of "Author, author." Again we find in Nona Vincent...
"There was by this time a crowd in the wing, all with strange grimacing painted faces... he stood for an instant in the glare of the footlights, looking blindly at the great vaguely-peopled horseshoe and greeted with plaudits which now seemed to him at once louder then he deserved and feebler than he desired...."
At the third bow and round of applause, Compton turned and seized Henry James's hands and wrung them. With genuine relish the novelist described the scene in a letter to his friend Mrs. Hugh Bell: "...at the end of all, one (after a decent and discreet display) simpered and gave oneself up to courbettes before the curtain, while the applausive house emitted agreeable sounds from a kind of gas-flaring indistinguishable dimness and the gratified Compton publicly pressed one's hand and one felt that, really, as far as Southport could testify to the circumstance, the stake was won. Of course it's only Southport -- but I have larger hopes...."
A month later he was writing to his brother: "You can form no idea... of how a provincial success is confined to the provinces."
"Great future author -- ovation"
William Archer called on James at the hotel where the novelist was waiting in his rooms to entertain the Comptons and Balestier at a late supper. With a want of tact that was all the more disturbing since he was speaking to a dramatist in whose ears applause was still ringing, Archer told him (and it was entirely true), "I think it's a play that would be much more likely to have success in the provinces than in London." He proceeded then and there, taking his critical role with the high seriousness he had always attached to it, to give the author an oral review of the play. After James described the incident to his sister, a few days later, she wrote in her journal: "To H. of course, heated with his triumph these uncalled for amenities... seemed highly grotesque.... H. was able to receive it with perfect urbanity and the Comptons etc. coming in to supper before long, he bowed Archer out, and served him up as a delectable dish of roast prig done to a turn."
Supper after the play, with the author as host to his principal actors, was accepted by James as an inflexible tradition of the theatre. His guests on this occasion were limited to the Comptons and Balestier. It was a dinner, he wrote later, "half-histrionic and wholly confident." The battle, the first major engagement, was over and James felt his hero and heroine "were really as radiant as if we were carousing among the slain. They seemed wondrous content." And wondrous content they all were. Balestier was in his characteristically buoyant spirits -- Balestier who was to die of typhoid in Germany before the year was out -- and James seems to have been in an equally exultant mood. Mrs. Compton, who had recently been ill, said he felt "cured right up." Amid popping corks, and over a gaily bedecked table, the little party was prolonged from 11 o'clock until 1:45 a.m. when the guests retired and the weary and happy dramatist went to bed.
Henry James arose early the following morning. The first thing he did was to dispatch a promised wire to his sister: "Unqualified triumphant magnificent success universal congratulations great ovation for author great future for play Comptons radiant and his acting admirable writing Henry."
Alice received the telegram at the South Kensington hotel and promptly cabled it to William James as had been arranged. In far-off Cambridge, William sat down and wrote to his brother: "Dear Old Harry, A telegraph from Alice this a.m. announces 'unqualified triumph -- great future author -- ovation.' I am almost as glad as you are, and hope that it is only the beginning of a sort of Sardou or Dumas career. It will of course inspire you with the nine or 90 other plays which you have in mind." William in turn sent the cable on to James Russell Lowell who wrote to Henry James on January 11: "I please myself with fancying how long your piece will run and how much you will get for each performance."
After sending off the telegrams Henry James returned to his rooms and wrote a long letter to his sister. He described the performance, the calls for the author, the general enthusiasm, the gay supper, Compton's acting. He promised "a droll anecdote of William Archer's behaviour and attitude" and reiterated his confidence in the future of the piece. At noon he added the following postscript: "Compton has just come in to tell me that he has already seen a number of people present last night who were unanimous about the success of the piece, the great hit he has made it and ergo -- the large fortune that opens to it. His own high spirits indeed tell everything."
James and Balestier accompanied the players when they left Southport that afternoon. In the memoir of Balestier that the novelist wrote a year later, he recalled the afternoon as "our sociable amused participation in a collective theatrical fitting, effected in pottering Sunday trains, besprinkled with refreshment room impressions and terminating in all but inaccessible Birmingham, in independent repose and relaxed criticism." James spent the night in Birmingham and went on to Cheltenham the following morning to pay a visit. He was back in London Tuesday evening, January 6, recounting the whole adventure to Alice, and on Wednesday, January 7, she recorded the "Dear Being's" account in her journal. "The great family event... has come off... It was delightful to hear and see him [Harry] flushed with the triumph of his first ovation.... The 'first nights' to come, we shall be less quivering about."
The World, with William Archer's account, came out on the morning of Henry James's return to London. It was a good notice. The critic, in a brief paragraph dated Southport, spoke of finding James a real "theatrical talent." He wrote:
"As the first theatrical essay of a distinguished man of letters is not, to me, an inconsiderable event I determined... to be present on the occasion... and here I am, mightily pleased with my adventure." He added that the play was "full of alert and telling dialogue and incidents which show a keen eye for stage effect." The first act he pronounced to be a little masterpiece of exposition. But he withheld any further judgment, until the London production.
This was high praise from London's most advanced critic. The provincial scribes who had more space in which to discuss the play, did not ignore its faults. All felt it required pruning. Some found the literary flavor too pronounced. The critic of the Southport Guardian remarked that James made his British Lord Deepmere like a fire-eating Frenchman, while the French Valentin was too like a cheery Englishman. The Southport Visiter, discussing Compton's accent, said: "He was quite consistent in the maintenance of the Yankee tone -- we shall not say twang nor nasal drawl -- in the purely colloquial portions of the dialogue and though in some of the more lengthened declamatory passages he sometimes relapsed into an Englishman the occurrence was so rare as not to be noteworthy...." The Southport Standard, however, felt that the accent would be more effective "when he shall have learnt to retain it in the more impassioned portions of his dialogue." The Southport Visiter observed that "the author has taken a recognized place in the ranks of British dramatists, for the judgment of Southport audiences is never reversed."
That, however, remained to be seen.
The American on tour
London, September 26, 1891.
Two weeks after the Southport first night Balestier wrote to Howells: "The most delightful feature of the success of the piece is its effect on James. He is like a runner ready to run a race. He has the air of one just setting out -- a youngster with an oldster's grip and mastery: surely the most enviable of situations." William sensed this change in Henry, writing to him: "It is an extreme delight to see you in your old and sedate age going in for experiences as keen and uproarious as this, and I do most devoutly hope, now that you've made your plunge, that you'll keep at it and become a Dumas fils."
Henry James was keeping at it. By this time he had completed two more plays and was filled with plans for the London production of The American. Compton decided to keep the play in his repertory throughout the spring in a tour that took him to Scotland and Ireland as well as over his usual circuit in England, and to open the play in London in the autumn. The Compton Comedy Company usually made one-week stands, changing its billing every night, and The American was given on an average once a week. In all it was probably performed about twenty-five times on the road, including performances in Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, where it was well received. James caught the play at its second performance at the Theatre Royal, Wolverhampton, and a few days later in the Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon, where he was noticed in the audience and came forward to take a bow at the end of the evening. He saw it once more at Leamington, on January 16, where he was still rehearsing some of the scenes with the actors. "I show 'em how to do it -- and even then they don't know!" he wrote to Henrietta Reubell.
Compton had taken a long lease on the old Opera Comique Theatre in the Strand where the early Gilbert and Sullivan operas had been performed. He invested a substantial sum in renovation, installing the "latest sanitary arrangements" and adding two new stone staircases. He could not, however, alter the theatre's basic design which included a long subterranean passage leading to the stalls, described as "discouraging to playgoers." James had from the first intimated that the play would need better actors for the London production. He began now a systematic search for some key players, in particular for the women's parts. On January 27, at a matinee of Ibsen's Doll's House with Geneviéve Ward -- it was the first Ibsen performance he attended -- he saw for the first time his compatriot, Elizabeth Robins; later that spring he saw her again at the Vaudeville where he was greatly taken with her performance of Hedda Gabler. "A young American actress... has lately revealed herself, strikingly, here, as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and has quite leaped into fame. She is slightly uncanny, but distinguished and individual, and she is to do my heroine, a short part, but a very pretty one..." he wrote to Mrs. John L. Gardner. He took Compton to see her perform, and it was settled that she should replace Mrs. Compton as Madame de Cintré.
Miss Robins was "uncanny" -- young, striking, intense, quick, intelligent. She had been an actress at the Boston Museum with Edwin Booth; visiting Norway she had fallen under the spell of Ibsen and now, with singular conviction and not a little courage, she was in the vanguard of the Ibsenite forces assaulting the Victorian theatre. That such a woman, bristling with energy, and whose forte was the strong-minded women of Ibsen, should have been cast by James in the passive renunciatory role of Madame de Cintré is a little puzzling. Mrs. Compton's older sister, Kate Bateman, came out of retirement to play Madame de Bellegarde and the services of a young and vivacious French actress, Adrienne Dairolles, who had been playing in English in London, were obtained for the role of Noémie Nioche. Louise Moodie, a popular character actress "supposed to be one of the two or three first 'old women' in London," got the part of Mrs. Bread.
"Happily 'there' to help"
The new scenery was completed by the end of the summer; the furniture ordered from Paris was arriving and James, who had insisted on supervising the choice of dresses for the women, threw himself again strenuously into rehearsal. Although there is no record that he had a hand in the men's costumes, we must assign some measure of responsibility to him for the extravagant garb he allowed Newman to wear on the London stage. A.B. Walkley, one of the critics sympathetic to James, said that "why the outer man of Christopher Newman should be clothed in a garment of chocolate faced with sky-blue remains a mystery known only to himself and his tailor." Another critic called it a "Noah-ark coat of yellowish brown, with blue facings and mother or pearl buttons almost as large as cheese plates." Justin McCarthy called it "an amazing costume of brown velveteen coat and buff overcoat, which recalls rather the garb of a travelling showman that the costume of an American millionaire."
Elizabeth Robins has described James at the rehearsals. His experience in the provinces gave him confidence; he seemed at his ease among the actors. He was "intensely observant, gravely and happily 'there' to help us. We felt his approach to matters of the Stage to be fresh and exciting. We were flattered when he took trouble with us, more hopeful of ourselves."
He exchanged gallantries in French with Mlle. Dairolles; he showed concern over the long hours of rehearsal and was disturbed at the irregular meal hours of the actors. Presently he was having his cook and butler bring down hampers of delicacies; sandwich in hand he would, during waiting periods, quietly steer the actors toward the hampers. "No other playwright," Miss Robins recalled, "in my tolerably wide experience ever thought of feeding his company."
"Two invalids: Alice and the play"
Alice James was dying. After years of suffering from a nervous illness, a tangible fatal symptom finally had appeared. She had a tumor of the breast. No part of the story of The American is more touching than the simple faith and joy with which Alice, from the four walls of her sick room, let her imagination soar to the footlights, following through Henry James the vicissitudes of his play and then dictating her report of its progress for her intermittently-kept journal. Anecdotes turn up every few pages showing that Henry James was putting forward the most cheerful side of the story for the patient. In his letters to William he late spoke of his two invalids, Alice and the play. For his sister, the episode was "so shot through with the golden threads of comedy that we grew fat with laughter." But for her nervous and agitated brother, the laughter masked an acute anxiety over her condition and a host of lesser anxieties surrounding the play. Six days before the opening night in London -- which was set for September 26, 1891 -- William James appeared from America, after a sudden crossing of the Atlantic, to see his sister before the end. He was thus able to attend his brother's first night and to go to the gay supper held in De Vere Gardens at the close of the evening. For the Harvard psychologist-philosopher, basking in the success of his recently published Principles of Psychology, this part of his ten-day London visit was "one of my finest exotic memories."
The first night in the refurbished theatre was a dubious artistic, but a great social, success. Robert Lincoln, the American Minister to London attended in a private box and several of the stage journals alluded to the presence of "millionaires" from the other side of the Atlantic. The Echo reported that "the majority of the ladies conversed in the tongue of the States, while all wore the prettiest frocks." Decidedly the American colony had been loyal to Henry James. The Echo report added that "the audience was one of the most cultured ever brought together in so small a space." It included the painters John Singer Sargent and George Frederick Watts, George du Maurier, editor Frank Harris, novelists W.E. Norris, Mrs. W.K. Clifford, Rhoda Broughton, the playwright Arthur Pinero, the American producer Augustin Daly, the actress Geneviéve Ward who had hopes then of appearing in James's next play. George Meredith, seldom seen at a London theatre, came up from Dorking with his daughter. Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose stories of the American South and the Lake country James had admired, and who was then living at Oxford, went to London to attend the premi¸re and we can glance at it through her eyes: "I put on my best, and we looked well enough, but were nothing to the others! Pink satin, blue satin, jewels of all sorts, splendor on all sides of us. The house was packed to the top, and the applause great.... All the literary and artistic people were there and many 'swells' also.... When the performance was ended, and the actors and been called out, there arose loud cries 'Author, author.' After some delay, Henry James appeared before the curtain and acknowledged the applause. He looked very well -- quiet and dignified, yet pleasant; he only stayed a moment. The critics have, since then, written acres about the play. It has been warmly praised; attacked abused, highly commended, etc."
The critics did write "acres" about the play and to read them today is to get a clear picture of the production; they were generally unanimous that the play was more melodramatic than the novel had warranted; they thought the writing obscure at points; they found Elizabeth Robins's playing of Claire somewhat hysterical, and they felt Compton's American to be too much of a caricature. "We are anxious as the critics of the newest school to hail the advent on our stage of literary men," the critic of the theatrical journal Era remarked, "but it is on condition that they bring their literature with them."
William Archer found in some passages the "touch of the born playwright" and defended the happy ending as not "a mere concession to cheap popular optimism but human and probable." He spoke of the "neat and charming dialogue which is grateful to the ear even when it does not ring dramatically true" (a remark Bernard Shaw was to use on a number of occasions in later years concerning James's dialogue). A.B. Walkley, in The Speaker, marvelled at the quality of scrambled action which James had infused into his play: "What, Mr. James?" he asked, alluding to The Tragic Muse. "All this 'between dinner and the suburban trains?' Allons donc! as our dear Gabriel Nash would say." A review in the Star, by "Spectator," who almost certainly was also Walkley, urged James to write an original comedy, and twitted him for his "stage American, with the local color laid on with a trowel, and strong accent, a fearful and wonderful coat and a recurrent catch-word." Arthur Symons, in The Academy, asked, "Is it conceivable that the play satisfied the author of the novel?" Clement Scott suggested that an American rather than English actor -- say John Drew -- should have been cast as Newman. The reviews in the daily journals, from the august Times to the eveningers, were tepid. It was generally agreed that Compton had the accent, but that there was not a great deal else, "except in the first act," observed one paper, "where there is a great deal of ugly overcoat."
It was inevitable that the trans-Atlantic criticism would be sharper. The New York Times carried a dispatch on the morning after the first night on its front page; its London correspondent labelled the play "a mass of bold melodrama" and alluded to the portrait of Newman as resembling that of "the advance agent of a circus." The American accent was characterized as an "irritating drawl." It was left however to the Atlantic Monthly to give a full evaluation of the play of its distinguished contributor. "American vulgarity," observed the review, "is always a tolerably welcome spectacle upon the London stage and even Mr. Compton's American, in some respects an excellent conception, is made quite vulgar enough to atone for many of his virtues." As for Miss Robins, she imported into the play "the hysterical manners of Ibsen's morbid heroines."
A lift from a prince
Henry James began a death-watch on his play. It was early in the season; much of the stall-buying public was still out of town; the critics had not been helpful, and the play carried at least four poor actors "too terrible a number for any play to carry." He said, in a letter to William, "We shall probably fight it through this month and then the fates must decide. Unfortunately their decision appears only too clear...."
Before the month was over, assistance came from an unexpected quarter -- the British Royal Family. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, decided to see The American. Here was a windfall indeed! Compton on receiving word hastily telegraphed to James to "dress up" a couple of boxes with "smart people," which the mondain American had no difficulty in doing. Calling on his sister that day, Henry James ruefully told her, "I'd do anything for the good Compton, but it will make me charitable to the end of my days." The Royal visit, however, had the desired effect. It gave the play a "lift." Booking for seats improved and the advertisements now read: "The American (an unmistakable success.)"
"I am ashamed," wrote Henry to William on October 21, "to say that the P. of W. on Saturday last, gave it a lift by coming and manifesting an intense absorption. It is humiliating to be so beholden -- but it isn't all the Prince." Presently the play had run almost fifty nights, and on the fiftieth, Compton and James did a curious thing. James had by that time made a number of revisions, writing a new love scene into the third act between Newman and Claire, bringing Valentin on-stage to die and taming the Bellegardes somewhat. For the fiftieth night the critics were again invited to see the play in what some of them described as its "second edition." They found this flattering and they announced with pleasure that their strictures had been taken seriously. "The third act," wrote Walkley, "has been reconstructed, simplified and greatly improved... and there is less of the hypnotised 'subject' or somnambulist in Miss Robins's Claire. But Mr. Edward Compton has not been persuaded to doff his atrocious garment of chocolate and sky-blue and he still sprinkles his gag 'That's what I want t'see' over the dialogue...."
James was cheered; whatever the outcome, the play had now had an "honorable" run. "Whatever shall happen, I am utterly launched in the drama, resolutely committed to it, and shall go at it tooth and nail. The American has distinctly done me good," he wrote to his brother.
It closed after its seventieth performance, on December 3, 1891. "Honor is saved," wrote Henry James, "but I grieve to say nothing else, for the piece made no money...." Ten days later, hastily summoned to Dresden, Henry James stood at the graveside of his young friend, Wolcott Balestier, dead at twenty-eight of typhoid. He had rendered James valuable services and the novelist was deeply attached to him. Gloom settled on him as he recrossed the Channel to London. In her journal Alice wrote: "The young Balestier, the effective and the indispensable, is dead! -- swept away like a cobweb, of which gossamer substance he seems to have been himself composed; of simply spirit and energy, with the slightest fleshly wrapping." Alice James was writing a tribute of the dying to the dead. Three months later, on March 6, 1892, Henry James stood beside his sister's bed, on a bright, soundless Sunday, and felt her flickering pulse. He described the scene minutely to William: "The pulse... came and went, ceased and revived a little again.... Her face then seemed in a strange, dim, touching way to become clearer. I went to the window to let in a little more of the afternoon light upon it... and when I came back to the bed she had drawn the last breath...." After writing this he crossed out the word last and wrote, "the breath that was not succeeded by another."
On March 9, Alice James was cremated at Golder's Green. And Henry James wrote to William: "It is the last -- the last forever."
Those who want to learn more about the full course of Henry James's career in the theater should visit the Henry James Timeline elsewhere on this site or read one of the excellent James biographies listed in our Links and Bibliography.
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